Friday, July 31, 2020

J I. Packer 1926-2020

J.I.Packer, 1926 - 2020

By now the news of the death of Jim Packer has circled the globe. He was a Christian gentleman, and a great theological figure. Striking to look at, softly spoken, with every word worth attention, he was remarkable. In a class by himself. He seemed to have boundless knowledge, an appreciation of Christian theological resources and of its wisdom. For much of his time in England, his influence spanned evangelicalism, both Anglicanism and Dissent.

Throughout his life Packer was a convinced Anglican, and the strength of his adherence to the Church of England was routinely underestimated. Early on he wrote,

’I am an Evangelical Christian. I hold that Prayer Book Evangelicalism expresses the authentic Anglican outlook, and that the task of Evangelicals in the Church of England is no more – and no less – than to present to one Church its true self’.(Discipulus, the student magazine of Tyndale Hall.)

Even the great Martyn Lloyd-Jones thought it was possible to turn him, and when the Puritan Conference, an annual gathering of ministers which was originally founded by Packer and his friend Raymond Johnston, was abruptly terminated, it was as much because of exasperation from non-Anglican ministers as on any other factor. They cold not comprehend Packer’s efforts in the conversations of the Church of England and Methodist churches to unite. In his chapter on Lloyd-Jones, his fellow Welshman and a sometime deacon of Westminster Chapel, Gaius Davies, says

Dr Lloyd Jones wrote to Packer to say there would be no Puritan Conference at Westminster Chapel in December 1970. It was effectively rather klike being sent a Papal Bull, even though it did not excommunicate Packer. Thankfully Packer survived what many of us still feel was very scurvy treatment by Lloyd-Jones and his like-minded colleagues. (Gaius Davies, Genius, Grief and Grace, Second edition, 2001, 366)

There are two papers of Packer on Dr Lloyd – Jones, each of them laudatory. The second shorter than the first, ends with these words

To  have known him was a supreme privilege, for which I shall always be thankful…..He embodied and expressed ‘the glory’ – the glory of God, of Christ, of grace, of the gospel, of the Christian ministry, of humanness according to the new creation – more richly than any man I have ever known. No man can give another aa greater gift than a vision of such glory as this. I am forever in his debt. (David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in Honouring the People of God, Volume 2 of Collected Shorter Writings of J.I.Packer, 1985,  (Paternoster 1990), 87.

 Not a sour grape.

In his student years he had encountered 'by chance' a set of the writings of John Owen in the basement of the Northgate Hall, where the Oxford Christian met.. He was attracted by Owen's writings on indwelling sin and temptation in volume 6 chimed with Packer's self=knowledge as a new Christian, rather than that of  the Keswick preachers and their followers which were useless in the face of his own failings. This was one impetus in the beginning of the Puritans at that time.

 An early paper of Packer’s showed his desire to keep the Reformed faith in front of his fellow Christians was in his article ‘“Keswick” and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification’, The Evangelical Quarterly, 1955, showing that the view of the Christian life sponsored by the Keswick Convention was a form of perfectionism,  of sanctification by faith. ‘Keswick teaching is Pelagian through and through', he said,  (author’s italics). and it was not that of the Reformed view of lifelong of indwelling sin and progressive sanctification. It is strange that Packer has never re-produced this powerful piece, though it was later reprinted in the Free Grace Record (now defunct), a Particular Baptist magazine edited by John Doggett. Maybe because Packer later thought that the Keswick movement has moved away from adherence to this perfectionism. His paper certainly alarmed some of his contemporaries. At the time he taught in Tyndale Hall.

He was of course instrumental in beginning educating his generation in the Reformed faith, not only to fellow-Anglicans, but what might be called Protestant Dissenters. Many of them relished his preaching to them and his writings. This was from the time he published a new translation of Luther’s Bondage of the Will with his friend Raymond Johnston in 1957. In it he was not shy to mention that

These things need to be pondered by Protestants to-day. With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation? Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned or even recognized by the pioneer Reformers.The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about the salvation of lost mankind . In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimise and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? (59-60)

The Bondage of the Will was quickly followed by his ’Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God in 1958. (The inverted commas were an essential  part of the title , he used to say.) The book was not a defence of Fundamentalism, but a defence of the classic view of Scripture, that it Is God’s inspired and infallible word. This was the first of many publications of the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture throughout his life. But in his 1958 book, beside this, there were chapters on the theme of faith and reason, with chapters on ‘Fundamentalism’, Authority, Scripture, Faith, Reason,  and Liberalism. But more than this, a treatment of the classical ‘faith seeks understanding’ position of the place of the human mind in the articulation of revealed divine wisdom and grace. I have often wondered that non-Anglicans who devoured the pages, (as I did, aged 18) without noting  his Anglicanism. The book displayed the virtues of his theological writing, clear, succinct, identifying one argument after another in defence of his view, and careful application to the readers. If, noting  the number of references to J.G.Machen in it, readers assumed that the author was in favour of ecclesiastical separatism from the influences of liberalism, as was Machen. But that was far from being Packer’s position. Packer the Anglican shows through.

In the course of writing positively about Calvin’s view that confidence in the Bible was a gift of the Holy Spirit he has this to say

The evangelical certainty of the trustworthiness and authority of Scripture is of exactly the same basis as the Church’s  certainty of the Trinity, or the incarnation  or any other Catholic doctrine. God has declared it; Scripture embodies it; the Spirit  exhibits it to believers; and they humbly receive it, as they are bound to do..... continued Unscriptural ideas in our theology are like germs in our system. They tend only to  weaken and destroy life, and their effect is always damaging, more or less. But they provoke resistance. Heretical notions may occupy Christian men’s heads, leading to error of thought and practice and spiritual impoverishment; but these notions cannot wholly control their hearts….in this case Christians in the liberal camp have adopted a position which logically makes reason, and not Scripture, their final authority. But,just because they are regenerate and have the witness of the Spirit. It is not in their nature to follow this anti-Christian principle to its logical conclusion…..' (passages taken from 122-4)

Here is a difference from separatism, an important one, that expressed itself in differences in the level of the toleration of other people. A separatist, such as J.G.Machen or Dr Lloyd-Jones, hah less toleration of others labeled Christian than had current Anglicanism, whose limits of toleration are wider. The limit of Packer’s toleration can be seen later. Packer’s and Lloyd Jones’s differences could have been foretold from these passages, first published in 1958.

Packer set out his view of Scripture at greater length in God Has Spoken (enlarged, 1979), and  later in Volume 3 of his Shorter Writings, Honouring the Written Word of God. It has 23 chapters of papers and lectures devoted to that theme. 

During  these years, the Banner of Truth Trust began producing Puritan reprints, including such as Thomas Watson, and in 1959 published the Puritan John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Packer wrote an Introductory Essay. This could be said to be quite a risk, rather like his 1955 article on Keswick. It defends and upholds Owen’s and the majority Reformed view, that the death of Christ secured the salvation of only his elect people, (This, retitled as ‘Saved by his Precious Blood’ and two other major writings on the efficacy of the blood of Christ, ‘The heart of the Gospel’,  Chapter 12 of Knowing God,   and ‘What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution’” the 1973 Tyndale Lecture in Biblical Theology, and one by Mark Dever, ‘Nothing but the Blood’, comprise In My Place Condemned He Stood, (Crossway, 2007). This book is a good example of the extent of Packer's later standing in  North America.

So much for his Anglicanism and the doctrine of Scripture. He in turn put evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, as his influence in work among students  led to the charge that belief in divine sovereignty  hampered evangelism. Packer argued that this  was the reverse. See his Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, (IVP, 1961)


What I have tried to do is to recall in a few words the theological energy and ability and courage  of this young, talented Reformed theologian, uncommon amongst his current Anglicans, the most talented man that I ever met, and the context in which he worked, with its tensions and opportunities. And in doing this, to celebrate and to thank God for him, whose earthly life ended on 17th July. For him

‘To be with Christ, which is far better’.

‘To live is Christ, and to die is gain’.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Edwards’s Puzzle

In the Author’s Preface to his The Freedom of the Will, Jonathan Edwards wrote,

And I desire it may be particularly noted, that though I have occasion  in the following discourse, often to mention the author of the book entitled,  An Essay on the Freedom of the Will, in God and the Creature, as holding that notion of freedom of will, which I oppose; yet I don’t mean to call  him an Arminian: however in that doctrine he agrees with Arminians, and departs from the current and general opinion of  Calvinists. If the author of that essay be the same as it is commonly ascribed to, he doubtless was not one that ought to bear that name. But however good a divine he was in many respects, yet that particular Arminian doctrine which he maintained, is never the better for being held by such an one: nor is there less need of opposing it on that account; but rather is there the more need of it; as it will be likely to have the more pernicious influence,  for being taught by a divine of his name and character; supposing the doctrine to be wrong, and in itself to be of an ill tendency.

These remarks are interesting in several ways.

Who is Edwards referring to?

To Isaac Watts, (1674 – 1745) the composer of wonderful hymns like ‘There is a green hill far away’, and ‘There is a land of pure delight’.  I don’t know if Edwards sang them in his church, or in his home, or when he was out riding. How do we know it was Isaac Watts?

We know because Watts wrote the book, An Essay on the Freedom of the Will, in God and the Creature, which Edwards tells his readers that the view he was to expound in the book, compatibilism, was ‘the current and general opinion of  Calvinists’. It was not a radical innovation, but the standing position of his Calvinist contemporaries and forbears. Of whom? One theologian that Edwards admired was Francis Turretin, and someone he had an even better opinion of was the Dutch Reformed theologian Petrus von Mastricht. In a letter to his friend and former student, Joseph Bellamy, he wrote in 1747, some years before his Freedom of the Will was published, Edwards said ‘But take Mastrict for divinity in general, doctrine, practice and controversy, or as an universal system of divinity, and it is much better than Turretin or any other book in the world, excepting the Bible, in my opinion’. His father Timothy Edwards and grandfather Solomon Stoddard  were pillars of New England congregationalism. He veered from his grandfather’s views on the ‘half way covenant’, but no sign that he changed his grandfather’s views on free will.


It is true that Edwards was somewhat outspoken on the defects of scholasticism, the mode of theologizing of his forbears, and so I guess his relatives were in no doubt implicated. For example he criticized Thomas Chubb who was not a scholastic, but Edwards thought he used language that was ‘void of distinct and consistent meaning in all the writings of Duns Scotus, or Thomas Aquinas’.

And he says this ‘instead of the plain vulgar notion of liberty, which all mankind, in every part of the face of earth and in all ages, have; consisting in opportunity to do as one pleases; they have introduced a new strange liberty, consisting in indifference, contingence and self-determination; by which they involve themselves and others in great obscurity and manifold gross inconsistence’.’

But this affects the form not the matter of the question of free will.  He wrote that he himself adopted the language of ‘the vulgar’, everyday language,  not of the ‘learned’,  in the book. Arminian views of the will depart from ‘the current and general opinion of  Calvinists’, and so in the book he holds that he was not innovating. Nevertheless, he tells his reader in the Preface, a person may subscribe to an Arminian view of the will without being an Arminian.

Watts and Edwards

The second thing we learn from what Edwards writes in his Preface is that he does not regard a doctrine such as the nature of free will to act as a foundation for other doctrines, the necessary and sufficient condition of the doctrines of a system of orthodoxy. He says about Watts,  ‘yet I don’t mean to call him an Arminian: however in that doctrine he agrees with Arminians, and departs from the current and general opinion of Calvinists.’ This implies, I take  it,  to take another view than  ‘the current and general opinion of Calvinists’ on the nature of free will and, Edwards seems to think, they are still entitled to that label, if they subscribe to the remainder.

This opinion I think was similar to the view of William Cunningham who in his laboured, rather tortured article, ‘Calvin, and the Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity’ (in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation). By this (I think) he was to give one in the eye to Sir William Hamilton, the Edinburgh philosopher, who regarded the Confession as entailing  necessitarianism. ‘Necessitarianism’ is how determinism was referred to in the nineteenth century. Using extravagant language, Hamilton believed the Confession held that ‘man has no will, agency, moral personality of his own  so a man has no free will he was able to do an act for which he is responsible.” This is not the language of someone who has developed an appetite for understanding what ‘God works all things after the counsel of his will’ means, or who can write carefully about any view he departs from.  But Cunningham went along with the spirit of this, arguing that a person can consistently be a libertarian as regards free will, claiming that the will has the metaphysical power of alternativity, and still be able to subscribe ex animo to the Westminster Confession.

The basis of doctrine

The ‘Watts position’ as we may call it is the outcome, and a reminder, that the basis of Christian doctrine for a Protestant is not another doctrine or doctrines, but the relevant biblical evidence for that doctrine.  The revealed word is the foundation, not any other doctrine.

Such is an inference of what Edwards says, about Watts. ‘A Harmony A person can have Arminian views about some central matter, but not be an Arminian. (Of course Edwards had no reason to think that Watts’s views would develop,  until he wrote such books as The Harmony of all the Religions Which God Ever Prescribed, the Arian Invited to the Orthodox Faith, and Orthodoxy United in Several Reconciling Essays on the Law and the Gospel, Faith and Works.. The circulation of such titles contributed in England to the Dissenting Academies’ departure from their earlier moorings in Calvinism through the eighteenth century.

A second problem

Edwards did not use the word ‘Watts’ once throughout the book, in which Watts’s book was referred to and argued about often. I wonder why? Watts, who had quite a few American contacts, was involved in receiving Edwards’s account of revival in a letter to England. This was Edwards's first effort in publicity in England, indeed in Europe, a letter to Guyse end Colman,  each prominent English dissenters, on the revival in Northampton, who passed it to Watts, and Guyse’s congregation promised publication. Watts saw it through the press as A Faithful Narrative of The Surprising Work of God, in 1737,  by which time the revival was waning, and Edwards’s  Freedom of the Will was yet to be written, being published in 1754. So plenty of time for festering. But Marsden in Jonathan Edwards, A Life, Yale, 2003, missed the significance of the snub of Edwards's not mentioning Watts by name by anonymising him. in referring to Watts’s book on free will. Was Edwards protecting Watts’s name?  But his name was easy to trace when supplied with the title of his book on free will, and Edwards readily supplied that.  If so, why no 'Watts'?